The Boob Tube
What word accurately captures the nature of Pamela Anderson Lee's presence on screen? Wooden? Plastic? PVC? Beyond Baywatch's slo-mo jogs that so entranced Joey and Chandler on Friends, her C.J. was occasionally required to pretend to have a job, to simulate emotion and concern, to play as a member of an ensemble. This was clearly a mistake; we know that now. As Vallery (no, not "Valerie") Irons, small-town wannabe-turned-front for an elite female-run bodyguard service and star of the syndicated hit V.I.P.--Vallery Irons Protection, you see--she is entirely in her element. Executive-producing as well as starring, Lee is guarding her own body in a sense--teetering around on stupendously high heels, wedging herself into gaspingly tight outfits, and generally having a high old time on her own giddy terms. She gives herself all the best (or worst, depending on your tolerance) lines, babbling them out without a care in the world: "They keep telling me about this bodyguard stuff. I'm just hoping some of it sinks in, like the time I fell asleep listening to Moby-Dick on tape and when I woke up I knew how to heat and store blubber."
So what does Lee do? It's not "acting," since that concept, as generally understood, requires the seeming impersonation of someone else, and Lee is nothing if not herself. (Willing suspension of cleavage, yes; willing suspension of disbelief, no.) Yet she's not "wooden," since woodenness typically connotes flatness (not a concept associated with this actress), or lack of affect, and she's animated pretty much all the time. Come to think of it, with her detonating body and helium squeaks, she could literally be animated: Betty Boop's cyberage update, or Lara Croft's bimbo little sister.
Nor is it easy to establish the directional relationship of Lee's onscreen capering to acting: Is she below it? Above it? Beyond it? So powerful are her gifts, so complicated her presence--and I mean that without sneering--that even prepositions tumble in her wake. (Hypersexual and presexual at once, she proffers the most confusing of sexual semiotics--put more plainly, her carnal presence has the comic logic of a naked Barbie.) Lee always plays herself, but what does "she" mean, really? The Ur-text of male fantasy, the lips that launched 350,000 videos of her sex tape with Tommy, the bounce that took Baywatch international. She's an incitement to desire without a center: Has any moment of her life not been digitized and sold? Pamela Anderson Lee, career bimbo, unwitting porn star, animal-rights activist, doting mom, is a prime example of the social construction of sexuality. So much irony is built into her presence that she seems to move in italics: Pam plays herself playing herself, squared.
What better venue for such a vexed creation than V.I.P. (KMSP-TV, Channel 9; Saturdays, 4:00 p.m.), since fall 1998 an expedited-delivery service for maximum jiggle and maximum giggle, and one of the most effervescent, trashy creations since, well, what? Even primo Melrose at least gestured toward dramatic convention; even The Dukes of Hazzard treated its stereotypes as players in some narrative. (Bo and Luke may have been dumb-ass hicks, but Tom Wopat and John Schneider believed in playing dumb-ass hicks, gubdarnit.) Whereas watching Lee "go shopping" in a black bandeau, skintight black velvet pants, black thong underwear hurdling the rim of the pants, black high heels--oh, and black cowboy hat (wouldn't want to leave the outfit unfinished)--then greet a bad guy by assuming a cartoon martial-arts stance and brandishing vegetables at him...really, what can you say? We have clearly left moldy bugaboos like logic and plausibility, and even camp, far in the dust. This is like watching a six-year-old play secret agent--that is, if the six-year-old had a multimillion-dollar budget to punch up the fun.
Someone involved in the show clearly is plugged into the traditions of television history: As we learned just weeks ago, Vallery's parents are Lee Majors and Loni Anderson. Isn't that just too Seventies? (Admittedly, Farrah would have been the classicist's option, but Loni doesn't make a bad second choice.) Better, unlike the sad-sack (and quickly canceled) Snoops, David E. Kelley's tonally confused network rip-off, V.I.P. always has the courage of its convictions. Supporting players, like the agency's real head, the delectably butch Tasha Dexter (Molly Culver), provide melodramatic gravity to counterweigh Anderson Lee's bubbliness.
Sometimes entertaining, sometimes dreadfully bad, this show is never less than exuberant even when at its most calculating. The explosions bloom beautifully, the weapons snap and crackle, the martial arts zip and bang. Everyone, including the guys, wears shirts showcasing impressive chest development. To call the plots preposterous would understate the case; they seem designed to achieve maximum ridiculousness, as when Val is hired by, er, "King Soltan of Ardina" to serve as royal matchmaker and ends up involved in a complex assassination plot involving murderous pizza deliveries.
In that sense, V.I.P. may be the most consciously Warholian (or, less ambitious, PG-13 Russ Meyer) production ever. It is pure narrative sensation, an hour of cleavage and crashes (though the baddies never get behind the wheel of any products from the Ford empire, whose promotional deal with the show allows only the heroes to drive). Its most important function may be as a recycling bin for the detritus of the entertainment industry. "Special" guests so far have included wizened teen idol Joey Lawrence, Kid from old-school rappers Kid 'n' Play, Pauly Shore, Hef (Pam has decorated the cover of Playboy more than anyone else in history), Ian Ziering, and Marie Osmond twice--not to mention ex-ex Tommy Lee twice, and skater Katarina Witt as an evil drill sergeant.
As such V.I.P. represents the cheery end of the syndicated spectrum these days. Happily innocent of anything larger than its own sense of play, it skips gleefully along in the margins, bestowing heftier doses of fun than anything networks have on offer. And more is on the way: Former Baywatch babe Traci Bingham is in training for her own series, Willow, to appear next year. So brace yourself: In more ways than one, Pamela Anderson Lee may just be the shape of things to come.
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